By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
Tennis stories are having a bit more of a moment in the last few years, from somewhat strangely forgotten at awards season Battle of the Sexes to, well, this:
Along comes Borg vs. McEnroe with shades of both of those films, from the big hair and fashion 1970s setting to, well, Shia LaBoeuf playing John McEnroe, which seems like an equally plausible plotline from 7 Days in Hell (which has got to be based on the same match, by the way). This is a serious drama, though, delving into the more alike than different psychologies of tennis legend Bjorn Borg, on the cusp of winning his record fifth straight Wimbledon, and the talented but volcanic John McEnroe, vying for his crown.
I appreciate the main thrust of the film, which focuses on the similarities between the two tennis greats psychologically even though they couldn’t be more different outwardly- one a icy Swedish automaton who betrays no emotion and the other a New Yorker who explodes into emotional outbursts at the first perceived on court slight. It’s an interesting tack to take and holds your attention through the film.
Janusz Metz Pedersen (of the outstanding documentary Armadillo) directs this handsomely, and the actors make the most of the material. Stellan Skarsgaard has gravitas for days, of course, and LaBoeuf really digs deep on the character and it shows- people forget he’s actually an excellent actor when he doesn’t distract from it with his antics (man… sounds like McEnroe).
Surely McEnroe did this at least once.
Sverrir Gudnason nails the male model looks of the real Bjorn Borg, and also does a good job with what he’s given, but too often what he’s given is to look forlornly out into the near distance, silently lamenting the prison of his success, or pose artfully in the shower as a statuesque figure of despondency. This film could have had half as many of these scenes and gotten the point across just as well.
With all that dread seriousness and about 25% too many childhood flashbacks essentially retelling the same foundational character flaws these sportsmen share over and over again, there’s not enough time to let the characters breathe and assume a dimension apart from the central thesis and central match of the game. It’s well done, but blinkered in its focus and lacking in passion.
Borg vs. McEnroe is a well-produced, well-acted psychological drama of two of tennis’s most legendary figures, but over-focused on that story to the detriment of the film as a whole. Perhaps it should have been a bit more McEnroe than Borg.
Borg vs. McEnroe (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every flashback to youth
Take a Drink: for every emotional outburst
Take a Drink: for every blank stare into the distance, or stoically melodramatic pose
Take a Drink: for every match point in the final match… a little drink
Do a Shot: whenever you wonder why they didn’t get Michael Cera instead of Shia